Monday, April 11, 2011

The First Legal Beer

Days Remaining to Next Beer: 342
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Boy meets girl in high school. Boy crushes on a sort of dates girl. Boy goes to college, loses track of girl, dates a myriad other girls (or so he likes to pretend). 

On the advice of one particular girl; boy joins Navy, a branch of the United States armed forces, in particular a branch particularly pertaining to boats, very large boats, the only thing the boy believes he competently knows how to drive. He soon discovers his knowledge of boats utterly irrelevant, however his ability too swim and tread water indefinitely proved useful.

Boy does stint in Navy, returns a changed mannish boy, finds girl that talked him into joining has far better educated lover now, shrugs and finds new girl, realizes hippies are terrifying, and calls girl he crushed on back in high school, the one he'd run into during that Jesus and Mary Chain show once during his first year of architecture school.
Boy starts long distance relationship, casual though, since girl lives an hour and a half drive away but likes excuse to come back to her home town, see her family, her sisters and mom, and doesn’t mind the squalor boy lives in with two other boys. It’s a largely physical relationship, as so many young relationships are with boys just out of the military. Especially shallow boys working for Papa Johns just to have all the free pizza he can get malnutrition and massive weight gain with.

Before the Navy stint, the boy had just completed his first year of Architecture school. He’d passed with flying grade point averages, and staggering debts to prove it. He\d thought the Navy would solve his financial troubles, give him the funding for further elitist education. The boy didn’t have a lawyer review the paperwork the recruiter brought to the dorm for him to sign. The boy'd fucked himself and didn’t find out how badly until he returned from the Navy’s boot camp and top submarine hunting school to find himself even more broke than when he’d left, except now with a legal obligation to show up on time and in shape for duty one weekend each month for seemingly eternity.  

The boy returned as well to discover his sabbatical from architecture school had left him a full 18 week semester behind his classmates in Architecture school, and though he tried vigilantly for three whole weeks, he could not catch up, nor would the instructor, a man the boy largely considered something of an intolerant prick, and not the good kind, wouldn’t let the boy. What serious student abandons his studies to get funding for school, the prick had asked, not curious to hear an answer, thus teaching the boy the term, “rhetorical.” A serious student, one that hopes to achieve greatness as an architect, will find the means to get his education. The boy wondered if the prick meant to either begin robbing houses, or simply intended to infer that as a poor, financial aid needing student, the boy simple wasn’t fit to become an architect. Perhaps something in the humanities? History? Public school education? Or go back to the Navy, and go full time, realize your potential as Seaman!

The boy, shaking his head towards the ground and his fists at the sky, renounces architecture and becomes a English student. He sour grape rationalizes that the projects the architecture professors were assigning were boring and trivial anyway, if anything, the professors were just using students as inexpensive draftsmen for personal gain. Turned out that perception was somewhat true as litigation in later years exposed.
So one weekend the boy goes to the big city where his weekend warrior girlfriend lives, after convincing his roommate, the one with the giant Evil Dead car and a license to drive it, to steer that land worthy vessel north to the big city, make like leaves and split. 

That weekend the boy discovered a lot of things, including meeting a woman he’d later move to Oregon with, though all he simply thought at that point is that she had Greek toes, like one of the statues he'd seen during his architectural history course, the one he kept losing points on tests in for misspelling "colonnade" so many times.

More immediately though, he discovered that he’d outgrown his own town and needed a change. To test drive this theory he moved north for the following summer to work and live and confront himself with a big choice, to stay and finish in a college he’d become increasingly disconnected with, except for the radio station he ran multiple shifts a week at, or leave what he knew behind and move north, and perhaps eventually west, since even then he wanted to go to the west coast.

Initially the boy moved in with his weekend-warrior long-distance girlfriend. Living with someone day to day quickly removed any illusions he had projected upon this poor woman and left him with  who she really was, a nice and well meaning person he found he had little in common with and less interest in building plans with, a horrible thing to realize, and left him in quite a predicament.

Pack up and leave, the sensible and respectful thing to do.

Or be selfish and admit he had more than a crush on the girl across the hall and confront the risk of destroying some friendships in the process, never mind infuriating the other tenants renting in the multi bedroom flat housed in the red brick building affectionately called the Roach Hotel due to the way the patterns on the bathroom tile changed when you turned the lights on at night, and where a Jodie Foster film had scenes with Harry Connic, Jr filmed downstairs once.
Never being one to read the fine print or think ahead, the boy rudely moves across the hallway and spends the remainder of the summer courting / sharing a room with the woman with Greek toes. With respect to the now ex-girlfriend, could have been handled better, and not a bright moment for the boy. Could at least have repainted the double doors lathered with a pencil sketch for a mural that never happened, something about elves and vampires. Also should’ve given her back her “Sweet Dreams are Made of This” remix 12 inch record. The boy still has that record safely tucked into his DJ worthy metal carry case, sandwiched safely between the "Bela Legosis Dead" 12 inch he used to play at the slower speed for dramatic effect late at night on college radio, and the yellow sleeved Killing Joke EP that is a replica of the vinyl his friend Shawn had discovered years earlier at Cut Corners Records by campus. Despite numerous offers to return it, all uniformly rejected, the 12 inch is left with him as a reminder to do more too consider the feelings of others, instead of serving self. The boy is still trying to learn that lesson, as this codec is not native to his hard coding or initial installation.

The boy knows changing love interests the right thing to do, however he had to learn that doing it within the confines of the same flat since the women involved were roommates not such a great idea; drama ensued, albeit mercifully brief. Some tires were slashed, some prank calls were received, an angry Australian hipster had harsh words.Dust settled quickly and the roaches still made patterns on the community bathroom tiles after midnight, entomological square dancing.

The boy next gets a job, because he is still paying rent back home, and he is trying to pitch in to help out with his temporary residence in Cincinnati, especially after the ex moves out (of course) and the other flat mates want to know who is going to cover her share of the rent, and rightfully so, what with the deficiency fully the fault of the home wrecker, an unpleasant first for the boy.

And the job he lands, the gig our boy is most qualified for after all that time in the Navy, is washing dishes, and so he does at a place called GJ’s b Gaslight, a restaurant owned and operated by a same-sex couple, one managing the business named Jeff Gundrum, while his partner chef Gary Martin ran the kitchen, effectively the boy’s primary boss, though the man the boy actually reported too was a sweetheart older fella that had an uncanny resemblance to Morgan Freeman that smoked menthol cigarettes and worked the front of the washing line handling setting up racks with cutlery, plates, cups, and other table settings. Working the back end of the large heaving, spewing beast of a feed through conveyor belt washing machine, the boy did everything else. 

Pulled the green plastic racks out to see if they were clean, if so get the oven hot dishware sorted and put away in the bins ready for rotation back into the busy kitchen lines. Heave the heavy mesh grid cutlery tray out of the sopping ass of the monster machine, wary of errant fork prongs or the occasional knife blade since a puncture and hot, soapy water equal pink puddles and a lot of rewashing wares. Shake the mesh tray violently as though panning for gold, except really sifting for food bits, if clear slide down the row to drain for sorting into Swiss cheese Wiffle ball colanders that can restock the demands of the waiters rolling preparatory place settings of cutlery into tight scarlet burritos made of coarse cloth fabric. And pots, everything used to make meals, and pans to serve them from, some to soak, some to wire brush scrub for immediate reuse, a hose to jet particulates away and weaken the grip of burned on gristle. 

So obviously the boy in this anecdote is me, so forgive me if I stop speaking in third person pronoun, as I find that a bit contrived, if not utterly creepy. 

Oil and grease rising up on the hot swill in the big, deep metal sinks, rainbows in the bubbles, fat rubber honeycomb anti-skid mats under our feet, the associate chef on an adjacent metal table doing mise en place duties, chopping up all the vegetables needed for the following day or specific spuds and roots for particular plates pending. And on another table across from her, an older gentleman with a faded yet iron cast affected British accent, a kind and wonderful soul, that teased and jested constantly across the room with the lead dishwasher, my personal Morgan Freeman.

Every weekday from 3:30pm until well after the kitchen closed, arrive dry and leave soaked, get a couple breaks to catch a smoke and raise a chin to the fading summer sun, listen to all the radios lilting and wafting through the air on top of busy Gaslight traffic and pedestrian street noise threading through this neighbourhood full of history and old glorious hotels now putting 16 foot ceilings over the heads of college students, artists, alternative life-stylists, and elderly shut ins. 

Halfway through the summer, on a waterlogged evening like any other, my birthday arrived. And just as he’d promised one evening while we were mopping and cleaning up, my compatriot of dishpan hands got us up and out of there in record time, grabbed a few other folks finished up from the kitchen, and together we went down the block to an old Irish pub to purchase me my first ever, legal pint. And when the bartender learned I’d just turned 21, he gave me another on the house. 

And that is how I had my first ever, legal pint, far from home surrounded by colorful colleagues in a shady dive that’d seen a hundred years worth of thirsty dreamers pass through, all on the cusp of substantial choices and changes to my situation. Not just of girlfriend and muse, or of city of residence. I turned twenty one and realized I needed to figure out what to do with my life. That conversation hasn’t ended yet, though the journey has largely been a hoot.

Turning twenty one, an issue of logistics really since I’d already been through boot camp and worked in a couple bars already. Being a sucker for symbolism though, I couldn’t help but see the birthday was an end of innocence. 

Retroactively, I don’t think the birthday transitioned innocence into experience, nor did the first official legal beer. That sweet moment fit squarely in with my belief that a pint with friends or peers during a pause to catch breath and appreciate one another and the accomplishments we’ve managed to do, or challenges survived. The real end of innocence came with the death of one of my friends, Jeff Gundrum, one of the two owners of GJs. Near the end of that summer the staff learned how ill he had become, and from what. By year’s end, not long after I’d returned to Lexington and school for a final year there, he passed away leaving a partner and a daughter and a plethora of friends and companions behind to mourn. 

The nationally touring AIDs quilt project passed through not long after, and I sent donations in his name to help support that project and the awareness it spread. 

I had lost some extended family to old age prior to then, though I’d been young and hadn’t been allowed to attend the funerals, so the deaths had been abstract, more or less, though they do deserve a post someday, particularly Granny McCracken versus the family that broke in to loot her place after she passed, and my Dad that went to guard her house with his trusty shotgun, or so my recollection of the legend holds. This felt different, more immediate and unprecedented. And terrifying. Jeff didn’t grow old, and he never seemed to stop smiling, or found himself short of warm and welcoming things to say. He just withered away, and quickly, not a large man when I met him at the start of the summer, by the end you could see the points of his shoulders through his golf shirts. Yet he seemed to be on the rebound when I turned in my plastic apron to return to Lexington. Seemed to be getting color back in his cheeks.  

I got word a few weeks later he’d passed. And confirmed with one of the cooks, an amazing man that also had let me tag along once to see my first ever drag show, one he’d shaved his John Water’s moustache to MC. Jeff had passed, happened quickly, Dave said, Gary is selling the restaurant, to many memories. We talked about this in the GJs parking lot, a lot I’d made extra money a few times guarding during the afternoon for cash money before my shifts, chasing down bitchy yuppie women trying to park in the lot for easy access to Clifton shopping without paying the dues of purchasing a tasty mean inside GJ’s.

I remember my eyes beginning to water, vision pinch and swim, that weird choked tight stutter feeling in my throat; and noticing, seeing Dave’s red rimmed eyes, the swollen lids, I choked my whimpers back, tried to stay strong for the benefit of a man far more shattered by Jeff’s passing than I. For me this is a revelation on how fragile life is, and how much impact a death can have on a family bound by a restaurant, friendships, and community rather than by blood or DNA. For Jeff, he’d lost a brother, a long time friend, an ally and compatriot. Family. I didn’t know true, deep sorry yet, that came later when my Grandfather passed. And kept coming with each Grandparent passing, each friend, every time another lesson about not taking anyone you care about, or anyone else for that matter, for granted. Because once they’re gone, they’re gone. And not just them personally, but all the contexts and aspects of the world they maintained. Others can try to keep things going, but without whatever spark a particular person brought, social and business organisms change, evolve to survive, or parish.
So the summer of my first legal beer is also the summer I first befriended drag queens, first impaled myself on a fork, first home-wrecked a flat full of renters (again, not a proud moment), first worked as a professional dishwasher and freelance parking lot patrol for hire, first saw Evil Dead and Gunhed. First time to lose a group of friends over a break up and only time to break up a group of friends going from dating one to someone else in the same social group. And sadly, the first time to lose a friend to a terrible disease. 

Cue Johnny Cash song, the one they use for the new season of Deadliest Catch, and fade to credits.
This post dedicated to all the fine folks I worked with that summer as GJ’s by Gaslight in Clifton, Cincinnati and to the family and living memory of Jeff Gundrum, a damn nice guy to work for.


1 comment:

  1. I worked at GJ's but I do not remember you. I worked there for about two years, and I left right as Jeff was getting sick. I would so love to talk to you! You can find me on Facebook, under Rubberbandgirl, my name is Mary.